Photographs and Memories
"Somehow it just can't be true
That's all I've left of you"
~ Jim Croce
I don’t have a lot of photos of my dad. Like me, he preferred to be the one holding the camera. I have even fewer photos with both of us. Most of those include my mom and are taken at family gatherings or special occasions, like my first wedding.
I do have a faded picture of my dad and a toddler-aged me – a two-and-a-half-inch square with a thin white frame of photo paper around the centered image. I’m wearing a white summer outfit and a black Micky Mouse hat with ears, but we’re not at Disneyland. We’re in the driveway of a house that I recognize as my Grandpa Dave’s. My dad is squatting next to me, one knee almost down on the ground. So, he’s barely taller than I am. He’s holding one of my hands on his other knee.
I can’t tell if my dad is happy. His smile looks forced, as mine often do when I have to pose for a photo. Sometimes, he smiles more authentically in photographs, but that usually has something to do with my mom being there and making everyone (including him) smile.
I don’t remember my dad as a happy person, although he lightened up a bit and was good at telling jokes when he’d had a couple beers and was standing over a barbecue. As a child, I sometimes wondered if it was my fault that he was unhappy. After all, he was quick to let me know that I “could screw up a simple glass of water” whenever I mistakenly brought him a diet soda instead of an ashtray (or whatever he’d sent me to the kitchen to get for him.)
From time to time, I look at the photo and want to remember that day. Somewhere, there’s another picture of me sitting on top of his shoulders at Disneyland in that same mouse-ear hat. I believe I was happy that day. Maybe he was too.
THE SMALL CRIES OF A VERY SMALL PEBBLE
An excerpt from a red notebook with typed poems written by my dad in his late teens. Despite his protests, my mom let me have it when I was in my twenties. I recognize his handwriting in a few penciled in corrections on the dozen or so pages.
Echoes were bounced off a pebble
who owned no part of space
who had no place on time
who wimpered softly of the wisdom
he held –
Yet, the absence of listening ears and
The void of unknowing – were the spears of fire
That crack the pebble
And it came to know the word “alone”
Perhaps only this loneliness has inspired the weakened
Of a pebble
A PHONE CALL
The summer before I turned 48, I left the U.S. to travel indefinitely. After spending the winter in Costa Rica, I returned to California in the Spring to visit family and friends, earn a bit of money doing a consulting gig, and finish planning my next trip.
I was at the hostess stand at a casual sushi spot when my phone vibrated in my purse. Pulling it out, I was surprised to see it was my dad calling. We rarely spoke on the phone, so I was worried that something was wrong with my mom.
He sounded calm when he told me that doctors had found a “mass” in his lungs. They were going to treat it like cancer until they knew more, but he was sure it would all be nothing and told me not to freak out or get all emotional. It would all be okay.
I hung up and ordered sushi, keeping my breath shallow. I knew if I let myself breathe too deeply, the tears would start. Already, I was wiping away a couple of them that were poised on the lower lids of my eyes. He said it would be okay. So, why didn’t it feel okay at all?
Excerpts from one of two poems I wrote after reading my dad’s notebook of poetry.
As a pebble
Is crushed and ground to sand;
Looking at the little boy
Who has become the man.
Thoughts and feelings
With a man who watched me grow;
Though he’s part of who I am –
He is one I hardly know
Through a porthole
When quite suddenly I see
That the mirror of another’s soul
Reflects a bit of me.
My dad went back into the hospital a few days after Christmas, the day before my mom would have turned 70. I tried to come to visit at least a couple of times each month, although I generally dreaded my trips to the hospital where I would sit by his bedside and listen to him complain about the shortcomings of the doctors, the medical staff, and even the people in our family who were doing their best to support him.
In early March 2020, my dad turned 71. He spent his birthday in the hospital and was visited by family and friends who would no longer be able to visit him only a couple weeks later when Nevada would join other states in shutting down and putting pandemic restrictions in place. I drove out the following weekend to visit him.
As usual, he was angry. He muttered at the TV, grumbling about liberals and stupidity and the “dumb virus.” When an orderly stepped in with his lunch, he stopped complaining for a moment. Then he picked up the printed-out order and began inventorying his lunch tray, letting me know that the kitchen staff had only gotten his meal order right three times in the entire time he’d been here.
“Do you see a wheat roll, anywhere?” he asked me, his voice raising in pitch. The oxygen monitor began flashing. It would begin beeping soon as his blood oxygen levels dropped from the effort of speaking so much.
I shrugged. I didn’t see a roll anywhere. I wished I could magically pull one from my pockets but knew it wouldn’t make a difference anyway.
He picked up the phone and asked the person at the other end why they couldn’t possibly get an order right. “You guys could screw up a simple glass of water, couldn’t you?”
Ten minutes later, someone ran in and out of the room to bring him a wheat roll and a small ceramic dish with wrapped pieces of butter. He exploded, setting off the oxygen monitor.
“God damnit! Why did they bring butter? I already have butter! What am I doing to do with all this goddamn butter?!”
I sat silently, but I couldn’t stop the tears. I hated my dad’s anger. I always had, but what I hated even more was watching him suffer like this. How many more months of this could I take? How much more could he take?
When my Grandpa Dave was dying, it softened him. He was in a hospital bed in his living room when we visited him to say goodbye. At the time, my firstborn daughter was about the same age I’d been in that childhood photograph, but we didn’t pose for a picture in the driveway. He was a gruff man, but a great storyteller, but he was done telling stories. Instead, he took the time to let each of us know that he loved us and was grateful for the time he’d spent with us. I’d always hoped that maybe my dad might soften a bit when the time came closer for him to die, that it would motivate him to set down the anger, make amends, be grateful, or maybe just share some final words of wisdom.
Instead, he doubled down on his anger. It had been the armor that had protected him for most of his life, so it made sense that he needed to wear it now as faced the fear of dying. It was all he had left since my mom had died unexpectedly four months before due to complications that occurred a few days after her back surgery. I still wonder if at some level, her soul decided it was time to go ahead rather than stick around to watch her beloved husband die.
He turned and saw me crying. Sighing, he leaned back in the hospital bed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. I know I shouldn’t be acting like this. I’m not trying to upset you.”
“I know,” I said. He was quiet for a few moments, staring at a framed photograph on the wall opposite his hospital bed.
“Do you see that waterfall?” He paused but didn’t wait for an answer. “Every time I look at it, I think about your mom. We went there once, or someplace just like it.”
His voice broke and a tear rolled softly down his cheek. “My life would’ve been so boring without your mom. She’s the only reason I ever did anything interesting. She was always making me go places with her. Places like that waterfall.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes. Then he told me that he talked to my mom every day. He told me he knew he might not make it much longer, and that he was at peace with that, but hoped he could at least go home one more time to sit in his seat on the couch and pet the dogs.
As I left, I paused by the side of his bed. “I’d give you kiss goodbye,” I said. “But I’m not sure with this virus thing…”
“Better to be safe,” he said. So, I waved and turned and walked into the hallway.
He passed away one week later. At that time, there was still a lot of confusion over the COVID virus, but the staff allowed one family member to sit with him during his final hours. He’d been moved to the a first floor room at a rehab facility, so his best friend and a few local family members stood outside to hold vigil.
I sat next to him and held his hand and told him he didn’t have to fight anymore. I watched his breathing and heartbeat slow as they administered medication to make his transition peaceful and held my phone close to his ear as family members called to say goodbye. When the phone calls stopped, I sat next to him and recited the Hail Mary, despite the fact that I’m no longer Catholic. I wish I could tell you that I knew the moment that he left, but I didn’t. However, I knew he was already gone before they came into make a formal pronouncement.
I gathered up his belongings, pausing for just a moment to close my eyes. In my mind, I saw a faded, two-and-a-half-inch photograph of he and my mom posing together by that waterfall. I noticed my dad was smiling.